By Anupama Chandrasekhar
Nick Hern Books, 2007, London
Price: £ 8.99
A dynamics of a tiny cell phone in the hands of a petite playwright create one of the most moving plays I have read in a long time. I haven’t seen the production directed by Indhu Rubasingham but I have read the script. So all comments here are about the script written by a young playwright from Chennai, Anupama Chandrasekhar.
Anupama Chandrasekhar is one of the most layered dialogue writers I have ever read. Her dialogues peel the subtext into existence. She has taken an incident that happened in real life and explored the implications it has on the family and friends. In the play, the central protagonist remains off-stage for the entire length of the play. Chandrasekhar claims she didn’t write her story, but the story of the people around her.
A couple of points make her play stands out: first, the use of colloquial language in the midst of English. It’s not Tamlish in the sense that we know it. Tamlish is Tamil with English words. The language Chandrasekhar uses is English with Tamil words to give a sense of place. And the translations are provided in brackets. Second, the use of silence like negative space on the page to define the meaning. The many pauses and beats in the play script provide for much meaning as the words. Third, the way the play ends: on a high and tantalizing note. The build up to the climax might not be a complete surprise but it certainly had me enthralled.
Chandrasekhar’s characters are unapologetic in their approach to life. Sharan swears just like any teenager! And is unpredictable too! Just when you thought you had him figured out, he goes and does the opposite. This adds another dimension to his character. Malini, the mother seems like a tortured soul who swings between pure knaivism and cruelty. Her knaivism is understandable. Her generation might have embraced inter-community marriage but doesn’t know how to handle the new generation who carry cell phones not teddy bears to bed. However, I don’t understand her unintentional cruelty. You almost dislike her handling of the situation. She seems to try her best to think a way out of the siege-like situation. But fails always. It is Sharan, whose sensible idea to speak out is finally heard. Ramesh, the colleague, is again a difficult to place character. That he lusts after the mother is quite clear; the shock quotient is added when it is implied that he lusts after the daughter as well. But yet, he is the only one who comes to her aid when they need help.
Sharan is shown stepping out of the apartment and in quite a few times in the play. Interestingly, Malini rarely steps outside the apartment – and when she does only once during the course of the play to go meet the principal of Sharan and Deepa’s school, her dupatta is torn. The dupatta, a garment that is traditionally thought to preserve the modesty of an Indian woman, is torn by the paparazzi and activists, a representation of the society outside. Though it is the daughter who has brought “shame” into the home, it is the mother’s garment and by implication body, on which the violence is played out. In other words, in this close-knit family, what happens to one is echoed on the other. A domino effect which no one from the family can dodge but friends and acquaintances can get away unharmed. Therefore, it comes as no surprise when Sharan is expelled from school for no fault of his. But Ramesh slips away when he is asked to help Malini the second time. And the neighbour Nirmala is opportunistic at best, appearing just once as a harbinger of troubled times ahead.
One characteristic shared by all characters is that you can’t judge them. They have their own motivations. And I stopped one step short of liking or disliking them absolutely. Just like in real life. There is always that one aspect that alienates you from any person.
All throughout the play, the various hints about water scarcity made it all too real for me. The outside world is just a honk away. The action takes place inside an almost claustrophobically small space, which stands for the collective claustrophobically small mind on whose door, the cruel outside world knocks from time to time to open up. Eventually, when the inhabitants of this closed world decide to answer the call of society, they don’t go out to meet the world, the world walks in. In the form of television.
Chandrasekhar plays with the unusual metaphor of water with time. When the water does run out, Malini takes her daughter’s share secretly hoarded under her bed, only to give a neighbour only to buy herself some time. The neighbour helpfully adds, “And you are out of time.” The play starts with a vessel full of water used for a demo and ends with invisible but implied bottles of water. The gamut of implications from full to empty is played out through the play. The water situation echoes the crescendo of the emotional pitch of the play.
The play lasts a few scenes spread across the weekend and yet a whole world has changed. The characters are held hostage by not just external forces but also internal ones like fear, shame, guilt, and unspoken human needs. In this rapidly shrinking world, the only way to gain a life (and life force, water) is to sell out to the clamouring media parked outside their block of flats. But do they survive? Or do they fail? Whatever they do, they do spectacularly because it’s relayed on national television.
Free Outgoing is a neatly compact play with dynamic dialogues, rounded characters, and the daring to explore the world from a single standpoint. All I have to do now is see the next scheduled production in London this summer to complete my experience of this play!